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Penguins

Evidence suggests Penguins peaked too early

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, May 12, 2018, 4:36 p.m.
Washington's Alex Ovechkin has a shot stopped by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray during the first period of Game 6.
Washington's Alex Ovechkin has a shot stopped by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray during the first period of Game 6.
The Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov handles the puck in front of Penguins goaltender Matt Murray in the second period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov handles the puck in front of Penguins goaltender Matt Murray in the second period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

For much of the next four months, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan will study video and ponder intricate tactical changes that could give his team an edge when next season starts in October.

General manager Jim Rutherford will pore over the free agent and trade markets to try to make his roster better any way he can.

Players will hit the gym and the practice ice for hours in the hopes of adding just an incremental dose of speed, power or stamina.

That's what a playoff exit does to an NHL franchise. One team walks out of the season with the Stanley Cup. The other 30 try to figure out how to improve.

“I think everyone in here kind of analyzes their own game and sees what they could have done better,” winger Bryan Rust said. “I think that motivates all of us to work on those things and be that much better come next year.”

But what if it's all for naught?

What if the greatest sin the Penguins committed this season wasn't that they weren't good enough, just they weren't good enough at the right time?

A walk back through the season shows evidence that points in that direction. The Penguins started the year trying to shake off a hardcore Stanley Cup hangover. Remember the 10-1 pasting they took in the Chicago on the second night of the season? That was a sign of things to come.

After a brutal 4-0 home loss to Carolina on Jan. 4, the Penguins were 20-19-3, good for 22nd in the league standings. Only Arizona, Buffalo and the Islanders had allowed more goals. If they ever needed to flip the mythical switch that would get them back into championship form, this was the time to do it.

So they did.

The next day, travel trouble forced the Penguins to fly into an out-of-the-way airport and bus several hours to Brooklyn for the tail end of a back-to-back against the Islanders. They should have been dog tired, but they weren't.

Sidney Crosby had four points with rookies Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong playing on his wings. Tristan Jarry pitched a 31-save shutout. The Penguins secured a 4-0 win that started them on a massive roll.

From that night through the trade deadline, the Penguins played as well as they did at any point during their previous two championship seasons. They went on a 15-3-1 tear, leading the league in winning percentage during the span. They outscored opponents, 81-47. Evgeni Malkin rocketed into Hart Trophy contention. Matt Murray got his season on track. They were the team no one wanted to face in the playoffs.

The red-hot run ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, right around the NHL trade deadline. The Penguins played fine down the stretch, going 11-6-2. They were OK in the playoffs, beating Philadelphia in the first round and giving Washington a stern test in the second.

But one thing was clear: They peaked too soon.

Sullivan could diagnose why the up-tempo, on-your-toes style that gave opponents fits in January and February was all too frequently countered by the Capitals.

Rutherford could try to figure out what his roster had in the middle of the season that it didn't have at the end. There's no way adding a quality player like Derick Brassard, even at the expense of sturdy performers Ian Cole and Ryan Reaves, makes a team worse, but it's also foolhardy to dismiss the timing of the team's downturn as coincidence.

Players could see if a longer summer allows them the rest and recovery time they need to make sure their physical performance builds to a crescendo, rather than a peak followed by a valley.

“How do you get all your players to be at their best?” Sullivan asked. “Why does a hall of fame hitter go into a slump at a particular time? Did he forget how to hit a baseball? Probably not, right? So it's human nature, and that's what you deal with.

“You're dealing with people that have emotions and have ups and downs. It's our job as a coaching staff to figure out how do we help these guys overcome some of their challenges to get them in the best frame of mind to be at their best. There's no book that's going to explain it to you. I think it's experience. It's knowing your athletes. It's the interaction you have with them on a daily basis. It's utilizing your coaching staff and your management team to offer insight and suggestions on how to deal with human nature. I think that's the biggest challenge of coaching.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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